Research published this week has shown that one in five families has abandoned the dining table in favour of snacking, grazing or even eating on knees in front of an Xbox or television, thus firmly putting to bed the old adage ‘a family that eats together stays together.’ It’s a backward step for our society , the civilising influence of good food shared, conversations and banter enjoyed will be missed by future generations. Let’s hope it is a temporary blip.
Today we ate rather well at an hotel which had more tables than you could shake a stick at. Probably 40 to 50 in 5 separate areas inside and out at both the front and back.
The Old Bell in Malmesbury, next to the glorious Abbey, has been caring for guests and travellers since 1220 and claims, quite genuinely to be England’s oldest hotel.
On this stunning summer day with a gentle breeze with the backdrop of the rear of the Abbey we lunched under a very necessary umbrella. The hotel has new, rather elegant outdoor furniture including the sort of table that any family would be happy to gather around.
Simon Haggerty, who has run this old gem of a building for nearly 20 years has realised that the popularity of ‘fayn dayning’ has slightly waned. It’s possibly too formal and time consuming for the 21st century with a more casual and simplified style preferred, I recently learned that golf is waning in popularity sport because it takes up too much time: and now old fashioned dining may be going the same way. My question is: What is it that we want to do with all this saved time?
The eclectic menu has old favourites, a selection of grilled, 28 day dry-aged steaks from Tim Johnson, including bavette with good sauces (béarnaise and chimichurri - a herby chilli sauce from Argentina); several interesting and imaginative salads; monkfish and asparagus, marinated poussin. There’s a good fish and shellfish selection including seafood linguine, fillet of cod and sea bream too. Our choices for lunch will illustrate this.
I started with deep fried soft shell crabs from a selection of whitebait, chicken wings, kedgeree fish cakes and croquettes served ‘tapas’ style.
Sandie had a good crab gratin and I followed with really perfect Scottish scallops on cauliflower puree. Never pass a good thing by, I say.
Calves liver tempted me but a veal escalope with anchovy butter and buttery polenta won because it seems difficult to find veal on many menus.
My wife loves fish (both catching them (salmon) and eating them) and so the word ‘seatrout' excited her - the piece of delicate pink fish with sliced new potatoes, spinach and broad beans was delicious and perfect for the day.
Vincent, the charming restaurant manager from the Charente in south west France and Poppy a delightful Malmesbury young lady kept all courses on course and also poured a light sauvignon blanc/Semillon ,’Widow Hen’ from the Wirra Wirra vineyards in Adelaide, Australia: ideal. Water was, to me, the disappointing Blenheim from Woodstock: was it passed by the Duke, I often wonder?
A good, fresh fig tarte tatin and caramel ice cream was shared, with two small (yes, small) glasses of firstly, a bold Pineau de Charentes from Vincent’s home territory - something not often seen here and, secondly, a Chardonnay auslese from Austria, 2009.
A large espresso with a Partagás no. 4 finished an excellent lunch.
Simon and Marianne run a good and happy ship here and I take my hat off to them for having the flexibility and foresight to change the food style direction to suit the current climate, needs and expectations.
Top marks to the hotel, top marks to the kitchen team, top marks to front of house and many, many, thanks to the table for doing what it was made to do. May tables go on being the bearers of happiness and content for as many centuries as the Abbey has dominated the Malmesbury skyline.
The Old Bell, Abbey Row, Malmesbury, Wiltshire
SN16 0BW (satnav: SN15 0BW)
Email: [email protected]
Tel: 0166 6822344